At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea

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9780684856230: At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea
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Everybody Out of the Pond
At the Water's Edge will change the way you think about your place in the world. The awesome journey of life's transformation from the first microbes 4 billion years ago to Homo sapiens today is an epic that we are only now beginning to grasp. Magnificent and bizarre, it is the story of how we got here, what we left behind, and what we brought with us.
We all know about evolution, but it still seems absurd that our ancestors were fish. Darwin's idea of natural selection was the key to solving generation-to-generation evolution -- microevolution -- but it could only point us toward a complete explanation, still to come, of the engines of macroevolution, the transformation of body shapes across millions of years. Now, drawing on the latest fossil discoveries and breakthrough scientific analysis, Carl Zimmer reveals how macroevolution works. Escorting us along the trail of discovery up to the current dramatic research in paleontology, ecology, genetics, and embryology, Zimmer shows how scientists today are unveiling the secrets of life that biologists struggled with two centuries ago.
In this book, you will find a dazzling, brash literary talent and a rigorous scientific sensibility gracefully brought together. Carl Zimmer provides a comprehensive, lucid, and authoritative answer to the mystery of how nature actually made itself.

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About the Author:

Carl Zimmer writes for National Geographic, Natural History, Science, Nature, Audubon, and National Wildlife. A former senior editor at Discover, he has won the American Institute of Biological Sciences Media Award and the Evert Clark Media Award. At the Water's Edge is his first book. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: After a Lost Balloon

In a basement laboratory in London a man contemplated a carcass. It was roughly the size and shape of a rolling pin, with a knife-edged tail, with fins like whiskers. Its eyes were the dark heads of pins, and its lips were full and sinful. The man stood tall and a little stooped, and although in 1839 he was only thirty-five, he had the kind of brown-eyed glare on which old failed prophets usually have a monopoly. He had seen the skin, guts, and bones of hundreds of animals that no Englishman had seen before, but few had irritated him more than this one.

His name was Richard Owen -- not yet Sir Richard, but on his way there. He had grown up in Lancaster, and in boyhood his prospects had not seemed so good. His father, a ruined merchant, had died in the West Indies when Richard was five. A lazy, impudent boy, he joined the navy at fourteen, working as a surgeon's apprentice, but after the end of the War of 1812 peacetime offered little hope of a career, and so he returned to Scotland. He had loved heraldry, and it may have been while drawing unicorns and griffins that he first became interested in animal form. Again employed as a surgeon's apprentice, he began collecting skulls, beginning with dogs, cats, deer, and mice. But he wanted more bones. For a time he worked for a surgeon who performed autopsies on the dead prisoners at Hadrian's Tower. On a cold day in January the two of them paid a call to the prison, and after the autopsy the surgeon left Owen to clean up. This time Owen did not pack all the instruments. He left a few blades alongside the opened corpse, and handing the guard some coins, he told him that he needed to come back later. There was some extra business to attend to before the coffin was screwed shut.

He returned in the frozen moonlight up the icy hill to the tower, bringing with him a strong brown paper bag. He nodded to the guard, who nodded back, and he climbed up the stairs to the autopsy room and shut the door as he went in. Before long he opened the door again, his paper bag full. He passed the guard again and told him that the inmate was ready. As he left the tower and began to walk back down the hill, his mind was filled with thoughts of facial angles and osseous tissues. The more he thought about the work he would enjoy at the surgery that night, the faster he walked. Suddenly his feet kicked out from under him. The bag swung away as he fell on the ice, its contents rolling free. He ran after it, down toward a cottage at the bottom of the hill, but he was too late. A woman inside heard a thump at the base of her front door. She opened it and before her was a disheveled, owl-eyed boy trying to stuff a freshly severed head into a bag. He ran with it all the way to the surgery, her screams flying after him.

Owen went to the University of Edinburgh at age twenty, but he soon outstripped their classes -- within a year he was traveling to London with letters of introduction from his private tutors and got a position as a surgeon at a hospital. To be a doctor in London in the 1820s was as much a political act as a profession. The medical establishment -- including the city's hospitals and medical journals -- was controlled by physicians who generally had Tory sympathies. Allied with the physicians were the surgeons who performed dissections and held a lower position on the social ladder. Opposed to them were the general practitioners who were educated at small private colleges and were of a more radical egalitarian bent. Set on reforming medicine, they lambasted the elitism of physicians and surgeons wherever they could, in renegade medical journals or newspapers or Parliament. They fought fiercely for access to the library and museum of the Royal College of Surgeons. A famous British surgeon named John Hunter had amassed thousands of books and a collection of thirteen thousand pickled animals, disembodied hearts, limbs, bladders, spines, and other materials that laid out the patterns of anatomy, but after his death in 1793, the collection languished for years. The government bought it and entrusted it to the Royal College of Surgeons on the understanding that they would publish catalogs, keep a lecture series, and open the museum and library to the public. But for over twenty years the college had let in only its own, and the GPs crowed loudly until Parliament took notice. The college agreed to let licensed doctors in and to draw up an official catalog.

Owen was hired to assist on the job, and when his superior died, the work became his alone. It was a labor that would keep him occupied for decades. At the same time he struggled to advance his own career as an anatomist, lecturing to medical students and winning the right to dissect the animals that died at the London zoo. It wasn't out of the ordinary to walk into Owen's house and find a freshly dead rhino parked in the hallway.

In 1830 a sixty-one-year-old French baron, ailing yet imperious, came to the Hunterian Museum. Because Owen was the only one there who spoke French, it fell to him to tour the man around. His name was Georges Cuvier -- a professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, and to Owen the sun in the sky. Like Owen, Cuvier had started as a shabby-genteel outsider, a German Protestant who wandered the hills around Montbéliard as a boy, picking plants that he would take home. There he would classify them according to the scheme of the eighteenth-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who had constructed the hierarchy of species, genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom. Cuvier was supposed to become a bureaucrat in the Prussian government after he graduated, but he emerged out of the Stuttgart Academy among a huge bolus of aspiring bureaucrats. A job came his way only when a friend returned home to Montbéliard after finishing a stint as a tutor to a family in Normandy. He arranged for Cuvier to take his place.

In Normandy Cuvier was treated more like a family servant than a tutor. He tried to console himself by thinking about the tour of Europe he was going to take his student on, and by studying whatever life he could find -- the plants in the town garden, a private store of exotic fish, another of oriental birds. But before his tour could begin, the French Revolution overran Paris and spread out into the countryside. His family fled to a village on the coast where Cuvier, now twenty-one, fell into almost complete solitude. He would walk the beach alone, collecting the animals that washed ashore, picking through the guts of skates that the fishermen would sell him. He wrote learned letters to the leading zoologists in Paris, and his reputation as a homegrown naturalist increased. After the revolution cooled, Cuvier visited Paris, where he stunned the scientists at the new National Museum with the knowledge he had taught himself. They were desperate for skilled help and hired him instantly. He was only twenty-three when he joined, but then again the man who invited him, a professor of zoology named Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, was only twenty-one. "Come to Paris," Geoffroy wrote to him. "Come play among us the role of another legislator of natural history." It was a parliament founded by boys.

By the age of thirty Cuvier had invented modern paleontology. People had collected fossils for centuries, yet even in the 1500s Europeans thought of them not as real skeletons but as some of the many forms a rock could take: some became emeralds, other became imitations of snail shells. Gradually naturalists recognized too many similarities between these stones and the bones of living animals, mineralogists realized how bone could be transmuted to rock, and the traditional view of fossils began to buckle. By the 1700s naturalists had found bones of everything from elephants to giant spiraled shellfish in the earth. Noah's flood, many of them decided, must have cast them to the tops of mountains.

Cuvier studied fossils as seriously as living animals. Bringing a steady flow of bones to Paris from the limestone quarries outside the city, he prised them free of the rock and found among them elephants that were different from the species alive today. He could only conclude that they belonged to a species that was gone from the world. No one had seriously thought that an entire species could become extinct, but within a few years Cuvier had found rhino-sized sloths and tapirs that had also vanished. He realized that a single flood couldn't have washed away all the creatures he was finding: their fossils disappeared at different points in geological time, demonstrating that life had shuddered over and over again with violent revolutions. Each time a new kind of life had somehow come into existence.

Whenever Cuvier looked at an animal, extinct or alive, he was overwhelmed by how all the parts fit together in a whole -- a single, unified organism. A bird was dedicated to flight in every aspect, from the fan of its tail feathers to its enormous lungs to its thin hollow bones. Substitute a bone from a barracuda into a bird skeleton, and the whole creature would be ruined. It was this dedication to function that could account for how different animals were similar to one another and could be fit into Linnaeus's classification. Since function dictated form, animals that functioned similarly looked alike. He divided animals into four major groups, based on how their nervous system -- to Cuvier the essence of an animal -- was laid out. Vertebrates had a brain and a spinal cord, the mollusks had a brain but no cord, others had barely a nervous system to speak of, and still others had systems that radiated out from a central nerve cluster. With such different architecture, each group could share no connection with the others, and the only reason that animals fell into a given category was that they happened to function in similar ways.

It's no wonder then that Cuvier scorned the ideas of another scientist at the museum named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that species actually changed over time -- that they evolved. When Lamarck looked at fossil mollusks he found that he could arrange some of them into a smoothly graded sequence through successive layers of rock. He claimed that in coping with a changing environment, a generation of creatures would undergo changes that they would pass on to their own offspring. Cuvier would have none of this transmutation. When Napoleon came home from Egypt with plundered mummies of cats and ibises thousands of years old, Cuvier compared them to living specimens and could find no significant difference. To him, life had a deeper order than Lamarckian evolution could allow.

By the time Cuvier came to London and met young Owen, he had become a hero to France. "Is not Cuvier the greatest poet of our century?" asked Balzac. "Lord Byron reproduces mortal throes in verse, but our immortal naturalist has reconstructed worlds from a whitened bone. Cuvier is a poet by mere numbers. He stirs the void with no artificially magic utterance; he scoops out a fragment of gypsum, discovers a print-mark and cries out 'Behold!' -- and lo, the trees are animalized, death becomes life, the world unfolds."

He was admired by the English as well, particularly by the sort of English who ran the College of Surgeons. The agitating general practitioners in London liked the idea of transmutating species and thought that humanity should strive upward, while the upper crust of scientific society preferred the idea that God had created fixed species on earth out of nothing. Their intricate designs were proof of his existence as much as a watch is proof of a watchmaker. And just as every animal had its place, higher or lower, in nature, people had their own place in society. Cuvier was therefore most welcome at the Hunterian Museum, and Owen must have managed to make a good impression on him during their short tour, because Cuvier invited him to Paris the next year.

In Paris Owen spent mornings in Cuvier's collections searching for inspiration for how to organize the mess waiting for him back at the Hunterian Museum. The rest of his time he spent as a dandy, taking in the opera and violoncello lessons, with Saturday nights reserved for Cuvier's soirées -- the only time when the stony man would abandon politics and anatomy. Owen also went to meetings of the Academy of Sciences, where people were still buzzing about a debate that Cuvier, after coming back from London, had entered into with his old mentor Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

Geoffroy and Cuvier had drifted far apart over the years. Cuvier liked to stick to facts, to avoid the sickened dreams of theory that weren't solidly embedded in the details of real zoology. Geoffroy meanwhile was enchanted by the work of German biologists and philosophers of the day, Romantics who hoped to find a hidden unity to all creation. He had never been much impressed by the classes and orders and kingdoms that scientists like Linnaeus and Cuvier depended on to categorize life. To Geoffroy they seemed arbitrary, since no division was absolute. Things that might make one cluster of animals unique could often be shown to be just the transformed structures of other beasts. A rhino's horn, he showed, was nothing more than a packed clump of hair. And if each species was perfectly created to fit its function, why had God left so many careless mistakes? Why does an ostrich have a wishbone, whose only function in birds is to help them fly?

Geoffroy conceived instead of a wild German hallucination: that you could transform any animal, be it a dog, an ant, or a squid, into any other. The transformation might be painful -- to see the underlying similarity between a duck and a squid, you'd have to bend the duck's back into a horseshoe. Eventually Geoffroy decided that these transformations were not hypothetical -- they were a sign that evolution had changed old species into new ones. Perhaps, he suggested, the change in an environment changed the way embryos developed. Freaks might be the start of new species. Geoffroy knew that his theory went against everything that Cuvier held dear, and for ten years he tried to lure Cuvier into debate. Finally, after he gave a lecture showing how he could bend the back of a vertebrate and end up with an invertebrate, Cuvier accepted the challenge. Cuvier had become frustrated by how his own students were being seduced away by the German song of unity, how political revolutionaries were coming into vogue again, and decided that this was the time to stand against it.

In a series of lectures, Cuvier used forty years of anatomy to mock Geoffroy's somersaults of bone and muscle. Cuvier was sure afterward that he had won the debates, but the real results weren't so clear. Owen was a case in point: listening to biologists argue the opposing views at the academy, he decided that Cuvier was right, but he still jotted down questions to ask himself. "Unity of Plan or Final Purpose, as a governing condition of organic development? Series of species, uninterrupted or broken by intervals? Primary life, by miracle or secondary law?" And within a decade he would try, in his own way, to reconcile the arguments of these two old Frenchmen.

As Britain's colonial tendrils reached around the world, many of the animals they encountered came to the Hunterian Museum, and ultimately ended up under Owen's knife. In the years after he returned home from Paris, he dissected acouchis, Tibetan bears, kangaroos, tapirs, crocodiles, beavers, mandrills, toucans, cheetahs, hornbills, kinkajous, Indian antelopes, turkey buzzards, water clams, flamingos, armadillos -- both nine-banded and weasel-headed -- and parasites from a tiger's stomach. In his work he took special care to stomp out the dreams of Lamarckian transmut...

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